Sunday, 20 June 2010

Massive – Ian Sample ****

This is a book of three halves. ‘Three halves?’ I hear you say. ‘Has the man gone mad?’ I defend this assertion because we are dealing with quantum physics and specifically particle physics, where the concept of something having three halves seems entirely plausible.
The first of those halves is primarily introductory. We get the obligatory (and now a touch tedious) novelesque opening with its unnecessary personal details (do we really care about Peter Higgs’ baby son who doesn’t play any part in the story?), and then we’re into background, both on particle physics and the concept of the Higgs field and the Higgs boson (aka the God Particle, a term the author is rather snooty about, despite happily using it in his book’s subtitle). This is by far the weakest of the three parts. The physics is skipped over in a very summary fashion – you get the impression the author doesn’t really understand it himself, and wants to get on to the people bits.
This is exactly what happens in the second half – and suddenly it’s a cracker. At this point what had been a slightly condescending book, in the manner of science being done for the plebs on TV news, now becomes a real page turner. The story of the race for bigger and better colliders and accelerators in the hunt for the fundamental particles that would explain the nature of matter is magnificently told. We really feel, for instance, for the scientists who had the US supercollider promised, started on, and then cut from under their feet. We understand the joys and pain of working at CERN or Fermilab.
The final half is nowhere near as bad as the first – but it lacks some of the sense of urgency and achievement of the centre section. In part, I suspect, this is because it’s a story without an ending. Of course Ian Sample had to get in the building (and temporary disaster) of the Large Hadron Collider, but in the end the story finishes with ‘and so the search goes on.’ There are a couple of anti-climaxes when a find is built up as a possible Higgs boson… only to be dismissed. This does reflect the realities of scientific work, but after the excitement of the middle section, it’s inevitably something of a let down. (For a more up-to-date, and overall better Higgs book see: Higgs by Jim Baggott).
Overall a good book on a subject that has more visibility than much current science, just a bit disappointing in its presentation of the physics which is too much at the level of TV or newspaper and misses out on the opportunity to get into more depth that a book allows.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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